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Mental shift: Yoga makes its way behind the walls of South African prisons

It’s World Yoga Day. Mindfulness has seen a resurgence in popularity and is slowly making its way behind the walls of prisons in South Africa.

Raeez Safar sits in a grassy courtyard, his eyes closed as he lifts his hands to his face. As the sleeves of his white top fall past his wrists, they reveal a small, neat gang tattoo with the number ‘26’ on his right wrist.

He plugs his ears with his fingers, muffling the din of the prison.

An inmate at Pollsmoor Prison, Safar is one of more than 250 prisoners who regularly practices yoga. He says it helps him cope with incarceration at one of South Africa’s most notorious prisons.

“Yoga makes me feel positive about life. It has helped me to deal with the stress of prison life and feeling positive again,” he says.

Cape Town volunteer organisation SevaUnite introduced yoga at Pollsmoor six years ago. Today, more than 250 prisoners in about nine correctional facilities nationwide are part of the programme.

“We now also teach classes, but the main thrust is teaching yoga through a correspondence course,” explains Brian Bergman, SevaUnite’s founder and director.

“Inmates complete six modules a year. Every time they write a module, our teachers provide written feedback and at the end, they have to teach three inmates the course they’ve just done.”

Bergman says inmate feedback has been positive. “They say how much more relaxed and focused they feel and how they can apply themselves (better) if they are studying and doing other courses.

“We had one guy write us and say that he feels freer now than he’s ever felt in his life and this is coming from a guy who had it all – the house, the car, the expensive watch. He’s serving a life sentence.”

Bergman says a similar programme in India inspired him to start the prison yoga project at home. India is just one of many countries including New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom to use yoga to introduce prisoners to a type of psychological therapy that has seen a recent resurgence in popularity following its birth in the 1960s and ’70s: Mindfulness.

The power of being present

“Mindfulness is knowing what’s happening while it’s happening no matter what it is without judgement,” says clinical psychologist Tracy McIntyre, quoting a definition first coined by South African mindfulness practitioner Rob Nairn.

Based in Port Elizabeth, McIntyre is one of a growing number of South African clinical psychologists who have adopted the therapeutic technique.

We may not be able to control life’s ups and downs, but psychologists argue that mindfulness may be able to help us reshape how we frame these events.

“What happens when an event happens – that’s what we call ‘primary suffering’. Then there is secondary suffering, and that is what we do with that event: our feelings, thoughts and emotions around what’s happened. That’s where psychology comes in; to say, how do we effectively manage that,” McIntyre explains.

Mindfulness works to develop patients’ metacognition, or awareness and understanding of thought processes, she says: “We can realise that we are not our thoughts, feelings and emotions.”

A 2013 analysis published in the journal Clinical Psychology Review of more than 200 studies showed mindfulness was an effective treatment for psychological problems such as anxiety, stress and depression. The UK National Institute for Health and Care Excellence now recommends the therapy as a way to prevent depression in people with a history of the condition.

A growing body of research shows that yoga may help inmates manage mood and anxiety disorders as well as substance abuse, which is often a problem in correctional facilities, says community service clinical psychologist Yeshe Schepers. (Lee-Ann Olwage)

Making a mental shift

A small but growing body of research now also suggests that teaching yoga as a form of mindfulness within prisons can help inmates manage mood and anxiety disorders and substance abuse, as well as curb impulsivity, according to a 2016 research review published in the journal Aggression and Violent Behaviour.

About 3% of South Africa’s prison population is thought to be living with a mental illness, according to Department of Correctional Services spokesperson Manelisi Wolela. This figure does not include substance abuse.

The department has supported the introduction of yoga into facilities as part of an integrated approach to mental health, Wolela says.

“Most offenders taking yoga classes have attested that the programme provides them with the opportunity to learn to accept themselves the way they are, to deal with stressful situations in a calm manner and to avoid negative thinking. Many of them are now less aggressive and have seen improvements in their health and wellbeing,” he explains.

Worcester Prison community service clinical psychologist Yeshe Schepers helped introduce the programme at the correctional facility. “We know that a lot of people who end up committing crimes often say that they don’t know what led them to it, so there is very much a lack of awareness about their actions,” she explains.

“Mindfulness can be useful for people who struggle with understanding or being aware of what is going on within them. It’s a nice tool to create a connection between what I think, feel and do and the impact of behaviour – especially in correctional settings where there is a lot of hostility.”

She says her yoga-practicing patients report feeling calmer. That’s important, given that prison is often a very hostile and loud place. It’s a feeling that she says is shared by corrections officers who have asked for regular yoga classes at the facility for themselves to manage stress.

And Schepers says it’s also given prisoners a sense of independence behind bars. “I see a sense of agency in them in being able to do something for themselves – they are not dependent on a guard or a visitor bringing something in for them. It’s almost like a sense of confidence I’ve noticed.”

Since 2004, the department of Correctional Services has more than doubled the number of psychologists it employs but only about 100 serve the country’s almost 160 000 inmates. Being able to equip prisoners with tools to self-manage emotions and stress may go a long way in a system where there are just about 7 psychologists available per 10 000 inmates.

Schepers says about the yoga participants: “The one thing that the offenders will say is ‘I have learned to think before I act’. I think that’s a lot because that, in essence, is the mindfulness. A moment of awareness to give (inmates) a choice to think through and to choose their response and that is very, very powerful.”

Additional reporting by Lee-Ann Olwage

Laura Lopez Gonzalez is a freelance health journalist and editor. She was Bhekisisa's news editor then deputy editor between 2016 and 2020.